The Lonely Times

I left my dog Bodhi alone today. Twice. And both times, she didn’t scratch at the door, leaving a scattering of paint chips on the floor. She didn’t bark and howl. She freaked out, but only a little, and it’s an improvement.

DSCN2034My journey in rehabilitating this dog, in helping her trust the world again, has worn on me in the last five months. In the last month especially, since I’ve had a regular babysitter come to the house who takes Coraline for walks, in turn leaving a helpless doggy mommy at home in a panic. I didn’t know this was a nightmare for her until it was too late, and we’ve had to start almost completely over in separation anxiety training.

I admittedly lost a little empathy for her then. Sometimes quite a lot. I’d get ready to leave, and she’d start panting and whining, and my first thought was, “Really? You’re really stressed again? Haven’t we been through this? Aren’t five fucking months of me coming home after I leave enough for you?” I’d get frustrated, and stopped calling her to me. Stopped petting her, when that was probably the time she needed it most.

What has interested me most in this process of getting to know Bodhi and in turn learning how to reassure her, is I find myself reflecting on periods in my life when I, too, recovered from trauma. I’ve gotten wise to the causes, and now live what most would call a solitary life, minus the two kids and scatterings of good friends. But at night, when I sit down to eat, when I have happy or sad events hive five me, or hit me in the arm or gut, I am the only one there to share them with.

These are the lonely times.

I’ve known Bodhi’s panic. I know what it’s like to watch the door close, the headlights shine through the windows and fade out of sight, and leave you in the dark. I know that panic of not wanting, not trusting yourself to be left alone. I know that feeling of complete loss of control. I know how she feels. I mean, as much as I can imagine, not being a dog and all.

But how do I tell a dog in human ways that I understand her? How do I tell her I’ll be there again in just five minutes because I need to run to the fucking store?

I can’t.

Maybe the training books have it a little wrong. The method’s not in trickery, confusing your dog so they never know if you’ll be gone for five minutes or fifty. It’s not in distraction of treats or toys filled with peanut butter. Maybe what needs to happen is confidence.

DSCN1992My dog’s on Prozac. She’s on Prozac because she acts like a woman recovering from years spent in an abusive relationship would act. She watches me for signs, trying to read my movements to give her a hint as to what I’m doing. She flinches. Hard. She constantly seeks attention, even when I’m mad. Especially when I’m mad.

When I first started reading up on separation anxiety, one website said to disengage yourself from your dog, to halt the connection, and possibly lessen it, so your absence won’t be such a loss. I tried this for a while, mostly because I tried everything, other times because I needed a break and couldn’t get one. This could be the worst advice I’ve come across. A dog who panics when you leave doesn’t need less love, she needs more. So much that when you’re gone, she still feels it, and maybe even starts to love herself a little, too.

That seems to be an important place to point to, and possibly the one we can pull from our memory and say, “This is when I learned how to be alone and that it was okay.” I can’t tell you when mine is, though. I’m still not sure if it is okay.

Because today I watched Coraline meet her paternal grandparents. They welcomed her with such love and joy and acceptance, and were so grateful that I brought her there. They followed her around and made her smile and whenever she walked on unsteady ground, a hand came out, just ten inches away, to catch her if she fell.

How better can family be illustrated than that simple gesture?

Instead of “What now?” say “How can I help?”

Instead of “What is wrong?” say “Here, come here. Do you need a hug?”

Loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety are the most primal of feelings, even in the family dog. Maybe especially in the family dog.

Bodhi has nightmares. She’s having one right now and I wonder what they’re about.

Maybe I don’t want to know.

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Deciding to Put my Dog on Meds

I made an appointment for my dog on Monday to consult with a vet about her going on medication. There, I said it.

Personally, I hate anti-depressants. But. I once had a doctor recognize that I wasn’t depressed because I had a chemical imbalance, I was depressed because I was horribly anxious all the time. I lived in fear of what might happen. I freaked out to the point of being unable to breathe, often over little things.

What prompted me to go to the doctor so many years ago was going out to my car to start it one morning, and nothing happened. My mind clicked to static, like the old television sets. Panic took hold of my chest, caused my heart to race, and my speech to slur. I knew it was a dead battery, but to me it was facing that my old junker of a car was dead and I couldn’t get to a job where I’d be spending the next eight to ten hours scrubbing a filthy house for ten bucks an hour.

1796678_426717130797462_1698480664_nBut these episodes were normal by then. I’d been that way for a while. Since surviving emotional abuse. Since becoming a single mom. I suffered panic attacks, whispering to myself “Nobody dies from a panic attack” over and over. They came without warning, sometimes like tremors, when I wasn’t stressed out at all.

The doctor, after listening to how my anxiety attacks specifically feel and how often I have them, rolled his stool up next to me.

“This is my idea,” he said. “I haven’t published it or anything,” he joked, taking out a pen and writing on the bottom of a box of Kleenex. “But here’s what I think. See. You have this bucket.”

He drew a bucket with a spigot on the side. He said most people will have a little bit of stress in their bucket that they can empty through a faucet. Anxiety and stress will come in, and it creates motivation to get things done, or to change things.

“People like you,” he said, “they have this disease, this disorder, called ‘General Anxiety Disorder.’“ He colored in the bucket with his black pen. “See…you have sludge in your bucket that can’t be emptied out through the faucet. You are literally filled up to here,” putting the side of his hand at his forehead like he was saluting me “with anxiety, and when more anxiety comes in, like a car that won’t start, it spills over and you have a mental break-down. It happens every time, over and over again, these mental breakdowns, until your self-esteem is gone, your confidence disappears, and you become severely depressed.”

I nodded. And nodded. And nodded.

“Now fortunately,” he continued, “this is very treatable. This sludge here can be cleaned out with the right kind of medication and therapy. This is a very serious disorder, and I really do think of it as a disease. I think it’s amazing you’ve coped with it for this long. I’m glad you came in to see me today. I know you’re at a crisis level right now, but hopefully with the right medication we’ll help you get some sleep and peace of mind.”

He gave me prescriptions that I took for four or five months. They settled my mind enough to begin processing years of stress, but also got me out to meet people and try new things. I eventually replaced them with activities and exercise, like going hiking and climbing at a local bouldering gym.

“You can see it in children, even in babies,” the doctor had said. “Some kids, you know, you play peek-a-boo with them.” He cupped his hands over his eyes and opened them to illustrate. “And when you open your hands, and they jump and cry, those are the ones that usually end up with this disorder.”

I’d been given a chance to relax. I felt like I’d woken up from a nightmare.

DSCN1782We’ve had Bodhi for three months. It seems like she’s recovering slowly, but if she doesn’t get a daily dose of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, her anxiety goes into hyper-drive. Not just with the separation anxiety. She’s just on edge when we go for walks, or if people come to the door. If I leave her alone for more than a minute, she barks, pants, howls, scratches at the door, and for the rest of the day her eyes stay fixed on me. If I get up to walk around, she stands with her nose almost touching my leg, panting.

My theory is that a few months of medication might help her brain develop new paths, like it did for me. I hope whatever they give her will grant her the ability to walk around without thinking at any moment something terrible will happen. And, the last few months have been so, so very hard. Most days I don’t know who is harder to care for, the baby or the dog. On days like today, when they are both difficult, I just about lose my mind.

Medicating my dog is a last resort. I am at that point. We’ve worked hard for the last few months. I’ve tried every trick in the book over and over. But I need relief more than paying someone ten bucks to sit with her while I go out for an hour or two. I need to be able to take the girls out for dinner, or go to the fair, or to a friend’s house. Almost daily, something comes up where the answer is, “But we can’t leave Bodhi at home, and we can’t take her with us.”

So.

I’ve never done this before. But this blog now has almost 600 new followers through WordPress in addition to the ones it had before. I ask anyone who is reading this if they’d weigh in on their experiences. Have you medicated your dog for anxiety? Did it help? Was it horrible? Please let me know. I need hope.

Best,

-step.

That and the Irony

On Productivity with Nursing Toddlers

I just watched Mia drive off to go camping with a friend. They’re meeting up with other friends of mine, going to a drive-in, and heading to some hot springs tomorrow. I didn’t go for several reasons:

  1. It’s like 100 degrees outside and I’m from Alaska.
  2. Coraline being outside means I watch her constantly because she likes to eat rocks and whatever else she can find that’s just the right size to induce choking.
  3. I need to work. (I know, I know.)
  4. The shelter dog that is a tad more work than the baby would hate it.
  5. I haven’t slept well in a few nights, so why pay for or do any of these things when I will most-likely just want to sleep or will sleep and then who wants to sleep anywhere but their bed?

Snapshot_20150801But now I’m sitting here, typing this out one-handed because Cora’s doing that nursing thing where she’s almost asleep but if I move she’ll be wide awake with the renewed energy of a thousand naps. I tend to sit at my desk a lot, trying to write out things, read things, look for places who might want to pay me for written things, and learning on how to cope with this freelancing career I’ve chosen to entangle myself in.

Sometimes I end up on Craigslist.

I’m not sure why I’m addicted to looking through the pet section. I think it’s the drama. I find it fascinating how worked up people get over someone trying to find a new home for their pet when they are obviously sad because they can’t care for them properly. Or god forbid you breed your purebred dog purposefully and disguise selling it with asking for a rehoming fee. You will get called out on that shit.

I wish for honesty in Craigslist ads. Don’t say, “Sometimes she maybe kills chickens.” Say “This dog has a lust for feathered friends’ blood like none other. She’d kill the first robin of the spring.”

Then, you find ones that are too honest, like the mother who got rid of all of her son’s belongings just days after he’d died of SIDS. Every post was more heartbreaking. She even listed those toddler teething crackers, mentioning she’d just bought them and he’d never be able to use them.

I’ve spent the whole summer, the whole last year, doing this.

I make a list of excuses or I guess reasons for why I don’t want to go out. Then I sit at home, nursing Coraline in the hopes that she’ll nap long enough for me to get some solid work done.

I forgot how hard it is, this toddler stage. Coraline’s already wearing 18mo clothes and she can swipe things off my desk with ease. She doesn’t have any solid words in her vocabulary yet, but whenever I chase after her saying, “No, nononoNONO” she smiles, and starts wagging her head from side to side, still moving to throw the remote in the toilet.

She has learned to wave, though, and it’s damn adorable.

I feel myself swinging on this pendulum of depression. Not in a serious, clinical way. There are so many times that you think of how great it would be to go sit at a river and go swimming before reminding yourself that I’d have to bring someone else, and the dog, and if I did go in the water Coraline would start screaming because I’d gone outside her radius, probably choking on a river rock. So what’s the use? I’ve found over the years that it’s worse to plan for a fun, relaxing time and not get it. I’ve learned kids will fuck up any plans you make most of the time.

Last summer I kept telling myself that this summer would be epic. I’m doing that now for next summer. We’ll get out, we’ll go camping, we’ll do hikes where the dog can run off-leash, and, you know, all the stuff I wanted to do this summer.

The girls’ ages have a good contrast to them. I look at Coraline, eating stale Cheerios off the floor, then see Mia packing herself a lunch, getting dressed, and really looking more put together than I ever am, and I can see that this is so temporary. When Mia was little, I had no idea it’d ever get better. Every day was a hopeless situation I’d gotten myself into.

Mia’s going through a phase where she’s not arguing with me constantly and I only make it to the number two when I count to three. It’s weird. I know next week might be different, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

My life is kind of like that right now. I’ve been working for a year to build a platform and get a freelancing career going and it’s dare I say kind of taking off right now. Not so much that I trust it, but the writing comes easily when you’re doing it a lot and sometimes you start typing and everything just makes sense and sounds beautiful and people like reading it so much that you think it’ll last forever.

DSCN4722All of these things are why I had “Nothing is Permanent” tattooed on my arm.

Well, that and the irony.

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For the Love of a Shelter Dog

DSCN1854There’s always nervousness when Mia returns. I never know what kind of kid I’ll get back. As she’s gotten older, it’s better. When she was little, she’d return from her dad’s house full of hatred. I remember once sitting her in a chair while she kicked, screamed, and told me she wanted to kill me.

This time was a little different.

I don’t know what to do about her sadness in missing her dad. I let her call him, and she bravely chokes back tears. I run out and get her her favorite dinner, let her eat all the ice cream she wants, and even gave her a few “Mental Health Days” to stay home and mope on the couch and watch TV.

That first night, I let her sleep out on the couch while I worked from my spot on the floor, the baby nursing in my lap, drifting off to sleep, and my lap top balancing on the foot stool. Mia was on the couch behind me, crying into her pillow while I stroked her back.

DSCN1863Bodhi, the shelter dog we adopted a few months ago, had been fast asleep on my bed, but wandered into the living room. She jumped up, and squirmed herself into a spot next to Mia, and put her head next to hers on the pillow. Mia hugged her, and the crying stopped. Bodhi waited until she fell asleep before returning to her spot on my bed.

She did it the next night. And the next. Until finally Mia was back to her normal self, getting ready for bed on her own, reading in her room, and listening to the latest Taylor Swift album promptly at nine.

Bodhi and I met with our trainer today for our second session. She’s now to the point where she looks to check in on me when we walk, and wags her tail like a fan when she sees other dogs. I can also leave her home for about 15-30 minutes. For our next meeting, we hope to get her playing with dogs who will respect her space and back off when she needs them to.

I’ve watched this shelter dog blossom in the last few months as her anxieties lessen and her smile grows. She’s given the baby a buddy to play with while I work during the day, and fulfills a need in Mia that I can’t even hope to touch. No matter how much I ask the court to tell her dad to show up, be a good parent, and follow through, I can only offer so much comfort. Somehow the dog knows. She knows.

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Baby Steps

The rain woke me up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I hadn’t heard it in so long, I had to listen. I haven’t slept well in a week. I don’t know why. There’s always something. People outside on skateboards, or a dog who prefers taking up half the bed. I flow through days with no idea of the actual time, because two o’clock in the afternoon is never right. I usually have a beer or glass of wine anyway.

I thought, maybe, I needed an “as of late” type of post.

In photos.

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Mia’s nearly home, or will be in a week, give or take. I’ve only talked to her twice. My days all fold into each other, and I barely leave the house, wrapped up in work, and caring for these two little beings who depend on me.

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Coraline and Bodhi follow me around the house like little lambs. It’s so frustrating sometimes I want to scream. But that’s the last thing I can do. So I bear with it. It won’t be like this forever. It’ll get better. I trust in that. It has to. I’m not sure how much longer I can spend without a moment to myself. I have to keep the “this is temporary” peace of mind.0709152301

But, they’re fortunately very adorable. They’ve formed quite a union in Mia’s absence. Cora follows Bodhi around with the leash, and pets her, and brings her all of her toys. Bodhi doesn’t seem to mind.

Meanwhile, I do so enjoy the occasional night of pizza and cheap wine.

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I’ve come to measure success not in obtaining nice cars and fancy houses and vacations. As long as I can afford taking myself on a cheap date, even if it’s at home, I think I’m doing all right.

I work at getting my writing noticed all the time, and it’s working. After getting picked up by The Huffington Post, almost any editor I submit to notices my pitch. I’m forthcoming in Vox and YourTango and Scary Mommy. I’m sending out queries, and just scored an interview to do a piece on climate change in Alaska. It’s fucking exciting stuff. It took me so long to admit to myself I was a writer. Now I feel like I’m a good one.

DSCN1827This baby I have walks all the time. She hardly sleeps anymore. She walks from the bedroom, down the hall, to where I’m working in the living room, and back. She talks her little throaty language, saying words with such clarity once, then never again. But she does wave and smile when I open my eyes in the morning. I like starting my days that way.

Bodhi and I met with a trainer yesterday. We’re slowly coming along in our human-dog relationship, and getting to know each other. DSCN1843The picture above marks a huge milestone. I’ve put her in that kennel twice and left the house. Both times because I felt like I had no other options. It was too hot to bring her in the car and leave her in it, and I couldn’t leave her in the house because she’d destroy a door or carpet or windowsill or all of it. Those times I left her in her kennel, I returned to find her missing skin on her nose, soaked in drool, and once she figured out how to unlatch the bottom lock and squeezed out somehow. But tonight, she went in there and laid down to chew on a bone I got her.

We make baby steps. All of us do.

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How to Leave your Separation-Anxiety-Ridden Dog Home Alone in 43 Easy Steps

DSCN1798This is Bodhi.

We adopted her from the pound almost two months ago.

After having her with us for a couple of weeks, we discovered she did not like being left at home alone. Now, I am not even that knowledgeable or by any means an expert, but these are things I’ve tried to ease her anxiety over being left alone in the past six weeks or so. It is merely an attempt to laugh at the great lengths we as dog owners will go to for the love of our furry beasts. Or, at least it’ll explain why I haven’t left the house more than five to ten to fifteen to thirty minutes lately.

  1. Determine your dog has separation anxiety after coming home to find your pooch drenched in drool, panting, barking, whining, scratching at exits like their life depended on it, possibly having injured themselves in the process.
  2. Read internet articles. Lots and lots of internet articles.
  3. Discuss problem at great length with friends who also have dogs with anxieties.
  4. Form a training plan, which is also called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
  5. Never leave the dog alone. If you need to, hire a dog-sitter. But mostly kiss your freedoms and social life goodbye.
  6. Begin “gaslighting” your dog by acting like you’re leaving, but don’t, saying, “What? I wasn’t leaving. What are you getting so stressed about?”
  7. Never make eye contact with your dog. Especially when you move around the house.
  8. Pick up keys, jingle them a bit, put them back down.
  9. 60 minutes later, pick up keys, go shut yourself in the bathroom, come out and put keys away.
  10. Continue this until you can pick up your keys and the dog won’t jump up and pant, following you around nervously for five minutes, looking for real signs you might be leaving.
  11. If your dog never settles over you picking up your keys, begin searching for other remedies.
  12. Spend hundreds of dollars on essential oils, diffusers, relaxation drops, vet appointments, dog training, prescriptions, Thundershirts, kennels that create the feeling of a den, and books, while making repairs on your damaged living area.
  13. Buy natural, organic food without grains. No corn! Only fish!
  14. Attempt leaving for ten seconds.
  15. Do not make eye contact with the dog!
  16. Always act like leaving and returning are normal. You know, like they used to be.
  17. If your dog still hasn’t settled with key jingles and leaving for ten seconds, try more tactics.
  18. Turn on every fan in your house full blast.
  19. Play music or talk radio.
  20. Close every curtain in your house.
  21. Turn off all the lights.
  22. Section off part of the house with large baby gates, preventing access to exits and windows.
  23. Go through the same process every time you leave for ten seconds.
  24. Turn on fans.
  25. Play music.
  26. Turn on diffusers.
  27. Give treats with relaxation oils.
  28. Put on Thundershirt.
  29. Throw treats out into the living room for the dog to find.
  30. Leave for ten seconds.
  31. Then fifteen.
  32. Then a minute.
  33. Then ten.
  34. Every time you return, undo what you did to leave without making eye contact.
  35. This will take a few weeks.
  36. Meanwhile, ignore all invitations to get-togethers and have someone stay at home so you can go to the store.
  37. Get to know your pizza delivery guy.
  38. Try to be as routine as possible.
  39. Go for long walks daily. Twice.
  40. Try different methods. Get a Kong and fill it with peanut butter. Freeze treats into a stainless steel dish full of water. Leave your dirty laundry in the kennel, or wherever the dog likes to lie the most during the day.
  41. Watch the weeks and invitations pass, but notice your dog is making some improvement.
  42. Occasionally, when you pick up your keys and go through the routine of leaving, start dropping pieces of meat on the floor to associate you leaving with something really good.
  43. Repeat all steps. Again. And again, and you, too, will be able to leave your house without worrying about your dog doing damage to themselves or your house.

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On Being Their Person

“The only creatures that are evolved enough to convey pure love are dogs and infants.”
― Johnny Depp

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I dropped my newly-turned 8-year-old daughter off at summer camp this morning. It was in a basement, there were no windows, but they had a lot of the usual morning chaos happening. My daughter didn’t look too thrilled to be there. She knew one other kid, our neighbor, and he was already in a deep conversation over the foosball table. I said goodbye, kissed her, hugged her, and told her the neighbor’s mom would pick her up at 5. Then I turned on my heel and walked out.

I had no worries about her running, crying, clinging to me, asking me not to go. Those days were in the past, and were primarily for my benefit. Mia’s always been one for independence. When I’d called to check on her after an emotional goodbye, her caretaker chuckled and said she was fine as soon as I left. “I think the tears were for you and not because of you leaving,” one told me once. Whenever I picked her up, it was rare that she was happy to see me. Which, let me tell you, gave me a huge “horrible mother” complex. But I’ve also made sure to put in years of constant reliability, showing up when I say I will.

That’s always been 75% of parenting to me.

Mia was about Coraline’s age when I started her at daycare. I just learned the months from 10 to 12 are a separation anxiety phase. Mia, of course, loved daycare, loved naptime, loved to sit at a table and eat with her friends, and took to the head teacher like she was a grandma. Coraline is a bit of a different story.

I thought Coraline’s attachment to me was the result of my solo mom status, but it’s just who she is. Since birth, Coraline would cry so hard if someone else held her, it took me a while to settle her . The only time she cried was when I put her down for more than a few minutes. By the time I found a woman (known locally as “The Baby Whisperer”) to watch her once a week, Coraline followed me around the house, her little hands clinging to my legs. If I picked her up, she’d squirm to be put down, then cry with her arms up, wanting me to pick her up again. For the last few weeks, she’s spent a lot of time in the Ergo carrier. It’s like a neutral place for her. I’m not carrying her, but she also has her chest pressed against mine.

Then there’s the dog.

DSCN1780Bodhi’s separation anxiety got worse the more she bonded to me. I’d return and find her frantic, drooling, and the couple of times I had to leave her in her crate, she rubbed some of the skin off her nose. It’s already hot here, so there aren’t any times during the day that I can leave her in the car (which isn’t much better anyway). I’ve bought books, I moved her crate into my room and made it into a cozy den, I’ve purchased essential oils and thundershirts and better dog food. I have picked up my keys and put them down. I have walked out the door and left her for ten seconds, then thirty, and so forth. I’ve left her with my older daughter while I run quick errands (telling the neighbors across the hall of our building first). I think she’s slowly improving? I don’t know. If I move anywhere in the house, she’s so close she’s touching me. If I leave, she’s beside herself with glee when I return. I think I figured out a way to leave her alone for short times without her getting frantic, but I haven’t tested it too much.

This, of course, has been a lot of pressure on me.

I understand how she feels. I know panic attacks. I know that feeling of not being able to breathe, of feeling like you can’t move while your insides want to run. I know panic, thinking you’ll die, while your vision’s edges turn to black. I know it’ll take time before she doesn’t feel that with every trigger, and I know they won’t go away completely.

But I not only can’t walk around in my own home from a baby who cries if I avert my attention, I now feel like I can’t leave my house without doing some kind of damage to my dog’s recovery from trauma. At least with the baby, I know she won’t always prefer to take naps with her hands shoved deep into my armpits, grasping on to the hair there like a chimp. I know by the time she’s Mia’s age, she might be able to cope okay with being left alone for a day of camp. I hope so, anyway.

What I find most difficult about being a solo mom is being someone’s person without having my own. I am the end of the line. I have no one to turn to for emotional support. On days that Mia is unrelenting with arguing and my bank account has three bucks, I can’t fall apart and cry. I grit my teeth, clench my jaw, and take deep breaths. Tomorrow might not always be a new day, but it is closer to the end of this rough phase we’re all going through. It’s been my survival skill. I keep my mind a year ahead or sometimes more. If I don’t let myself fall apart, it won’t become a habit.

And we’ll get through this.

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